Emotional effects of music exposure- part 1

Marshall Chasin
December 30, 2014

This is a great video clip.  Even the bassoonist downwind jerks his head, and I feel badly for the horn player, and I even have some feelings for the percussionist.

While not typical, this is fairly representative of the environment that many professional musicians find themselves in.  Sometimes they are confronted by a blast from their rear; sometimes it is a conductor who is being supremely unreasonable; and sometimes their musician colleagues just take a disliking to them.  It is not unheard of for a trumpet player to intentionally move his seat to be directly behind an “innocent” woodwind player who has complained about excessive levels from the brass.  I have even heard of an orchestra that intentionally played 1/8 beat off just to drive the conductor crazy.

In short, although it seems that an orchestra or symphony (or even members of a rock band) are best of friends and are passionate about their music… people are people.

I recall reading an article in 1983 in the journal Ear and Hearing by Lindgren and Axelsson ) where they exposed subjects to noise and music of “equal energy.”  They then measured the temporary  threshold shift (known as TTS) that can occur after a prolonged exposure to noise or music and they found that while the TTS was the same in 6 of the 10 subjects for the noise and the music exposure, 4 out of the 10 subjects experienced a greater TTS for the noise than for the music.

After reading this article I recall doubting the veracity of its findings.  After all, we are all taught in school that the two factors that affect hearing loss are the sound level (in dBA) and the duration.  I don’t recall reading anything about whether the stimulus was noise or music.  After all, music is noise but in a more pleasing pattern- they are both merely vibrations in the air. In the Ear and Hearing article, there was a reference to Hormann’s work.

And this brings us to Hormann and his colleagues G. Mainka and H. Gummlich who published an article in 1971 with the exciting title Psychische und physisiche Reaktionen auf Gerausch verschiedener subjektiver Wertigkeit.  The article appeared only in German so it took some time to get it translated- with thanks to my parents and some well educated friends.

Essentially Hormann took some first year (and easily frightened) students and asked them to do a simple task- some could do it and others could not.  This task had no bearing on anything and certainly was not an indicator of their future academic success.  For those who could do this task, he was positive and rewarding- he told them that they would ace this course and are wonderful human beings.  He then sent them into a room that was brightly lit, with smiling grad students who “applied” some noise to measure its effect (essentially a TTS test)- they were going to go out for a beer together afterwards with the professor (I’m making this part up but it sounds good). In short, this was a reward.  For those who could not do this task, he was mean and sent them into a dark, smelly room, where mean graduate students said that they would blow their ears out, because they were so stupid and incompetent.  In short, a punishment.

Unbeknownst to the two groups, the noise exposure was identical- one was positively viewed as a reward, and the other negatively viewed as a punishment.

The “reward” group had statistically significantly less TTS (12.5 dB) than the “punishment” group (18 dB).  There appears to be an emotional component to experiencing temporary hearing loss (and perhaps although not yet definitely shown, for permanent hearing loss).

The difference was not great, but it did reach statistical significance.  There now appear to be three factors affecting the hearing mechanism from loud noise and music- sound level (in dBA), duration, and the emotional perspective.

Other work (see part 2 of this blog series) since then has shown that it is being emotionally negative that is more damaging, and not being emotionally positive that is “less” damaging.  This may be a factor in the numerous “less-than-healthy” work environments that many musicians may find themselves in.  Being negatively pre-disposed to the music may increase the susceptibility to exposure.





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